In the fourth season of the show How I Met Your Mother, the characters stare enviously at the hot tub on the patio of the building next door. One of the characters, Marshall, walks over to the edge of their roof, looks at the seven-foot gap and says:

“I can jump that far”

I find the metaphor of a gap between where a person is (on their room) and where they want to be (on a roof with a sweet hot tub) useful in explaining why people make the metaphorical ‘leap’ to start new behaviors.

Two variables that contribute to goal directed behavior are self-efficacy and incentives.

Self-efficacy describes confidence in abilities to perform a behavior and overcome barriers.

Incentives describe the outcomes of a behavior as well as the values of the outcome.

Based on self-efficacy and incentives three things need to be in place to make the behavioral ‘leap’:

  • Realistic gap between where you are and where you want to be: It certainly would not have taken Marshall 3 years to make the jump if the gap between buildings was 3 feet instead of 7. He could have simply stepped to the next building if it was 3 feet. When setting a behavioral or health goal, don’t try to go from 0 to 100. Take small and manageable steps.
  • Use the success of others: Once Marshall took the leap, so did all the other characters. By observing others succeed who are similar, people improve their confidence.
  • Enhance/identify the value of the behavior: Imagine if on the other side of the building was an advanced screening of Thor Ragnarok (omg how great does this movie look), or whatever gets you excited, you’d be more likely to make the leap.

Any time a person sets a goal, they create a discrepancy between their current self and the person they want to be. If a person says they want to lose 20 pounds they have created a ‘gap’ between their real and ideal selves.

In order to successfully enact behaviors and increase confidence for certain behaviors a person should make a goal that is appropriate (i.e. a goal they can step too rather than leap to), examine success stories of similar individuals, and identify the value in reaching their goal.

Shrink the Gap

In the book Switch, the authors devote an entire section to what they call “shrinking the change”. If a person perceives that the gap between where they are and where they want to be as too daunting they may never take action.

For example, the gap created by setting a goal of losing 100 pounds is enormous and may be terrifying to many individuals. However, setting a goal of losing 10 pounds does not create such a massive discrepancy.

A person may still hold the goal of losing 100 pounds but they should break it down into smaller, more manageable goals.

Refrain from tackling behavioral goals that seem too intimidating. For example, the thought of performing resistance training 5 times per week for an hour may create a large ‘discrepancy gap’.

If a person is not confident in this behavior they might want to consider resistance training twice per week for 30 minutes. This creates a much smaller and more manageable ‘discrepancy gap’.

Use the Success of Others as a Guide

When people who are similar to us accomplish a goal, or enact a behavior we think:

“Hey, if they can do it, so can I”

University of Saskatchewan (which just so happens to be the city where Deadpool claims he is from, this is totally beside the point though) researchers Carly Priebe and Kevin Spink demonstrated this is a neat little study.

They had participants perform a plank for as long as they could and then let them rest for a little while. After the rest period, Priebe and Spink told the participants that ‘most other people held their second maximal plank for a longer than their first one.

Sure enough, people receiving that message performed the plank for a longer time than the first and significantly longer than the control group who reduced their plank time.

If similar others are successful in a challenging task, our self-efficacy for the task actually increases. In fact, other than actually performing a behavior, vicarious experience is the second strongest source of self-efficacy.

If you have a friend that used to be sedentary but started running ask them how they did it. Ask them if you can join them on their next short run. If you have a colleague that lost a lot of weight, talk to them and ask them what they did or what professional they worked with.

Identify the Value in Reaching the Goal/Performing the Behavior

How is losing 30 pounds or beginning a resistance training program going to make your life better. What value will you get out of this?

Goals are great, but a goal just for the sake of having a goal may not be useful in the long run. North Carolina professor Dr. Hitlin has described values as “enduring goals”.

I like this explanation because identifying values can help a person maintain a behavior and also continue the behavior when barriers inevitably arise.

Once you have decided what behavior to perform or the appropriate goal to make, ask yourself why this goal is important. How is this goal valuable to you or how does the behavior fit into your current value structure?

I’ve written about values extensively here.

And also here 

Conclusions

Change is a complex process and there are certainly more variables involved than just self-efficacy and incentives. However, both of these variables are key starting points to any change. Having confidence in the goal, a plan to reach the goal, and placing value on the goal are crucial.

Pick a goal that does not create a large discrepancy between your real and ideal self, ask others who have been successful for advice, and be sure to identify the importance or what you will gain by reaching the goal or enacting certain behaviors.